All foodies should make room for a few high-quality standbys
The Observer Food Monthly has asked top chefs what foods they could not live without. The magazine meant, I think, store cupboard items - a point missed by Raymond Blanc, who nominated Laverstoke Park Hebridean lamb and Rhug organic chicken. We get enough of that sort of intimidating advice; what was cheering in this feature was the endorsements of humble and mass-produced items. I was chuffed that Angela Hartnett picked Hellmann's mayonnaise, one of my guilty pleasures - and yes, I do make my own mayonnaise occasionally.
Listing one's own favourites is fun. Here are a few of mine. They start with two products with which, so crude are my tastes, I smother a lot of my food.
Encona Caribbean hot pepper sauce. The Cottage Delight brand is also good, as is a chilli sauce called Asia's Finest; but they do not have the zing of the Encona version (some find it too vinegary). I stir it into rice and noodle dishes, and spread it on to cold meats. You cannot use it as a marinade, however: it turns acrid on the grill.
Le Phare du Cap Bon harissa. While I make my own harissa, I use a lot of this as well - with couscous of course, and as a marinade, and even stirred into pasta dishes. Spooned into a jar and covered in oil, it keeps in the fridge.
Maille Dijon mustard. I have done a taste-test of this and Grey Poupon, and although I could not swear that I would distinguish them in a blind tasting, I think that I marginally preferred the Maille. I love - but, so far, I have found it only in France - the Maille with green peppercorns. It is so delicious, I'd happily eat it on toast for breakfast.
Cirio tinned tomatoes. Several chefs recommended the Napolina brand. I shall have to try this again; meanwhile, my view is that Cirio is the best. Also good, if you can find them, are Whole Earth organic ones, with a fresh flavour that tinned tomatoes usually lack.
Crespo Greek-style olives; Organico artichoke hearts. So many bottled olives are null and lifeless. These, with their wrinkled skins, have a salty richness and a pleasing texture. The Organico artichokes, unlike some brands, at least approximate the taste of their fresh counterparts.
De Cecco pasta. I agree with my betters: this is the brand to go for. It retains its firmness when cooked; many others go a bit mushy by comparison.
Crazy Jack fair-trade basmati rice. If you want to cook rice by the absorption method, you need to choose an appropriate brand. Tesco's, for example, is hopeless: you get a sticky clump (but boiling it works fine). After cooking, Crazy Jack's grains separate pretty well, as do those of a brand called Pearl.
Queen of the Coast sardines. Tinned sardines are fantastic value. These come in a spicy sauce, which I spice up further with harissa. You can warm them in the oven, and stir them into spaghetti.